Mention change in the pharma industry today and you’ll get raised eyebrows along with a sarcastic alliterative remark suggesting you must be Sherlock Holmes…
No, the question is not whether change is happening, it’s how you predict, control and channel change to your advantage. Or acquiesce and allow it to happen to you.
Secular industry change is risky and challenging. But it’s only through market-defining challenges that companies and people come out stronger and better poised for the road ahead. Embracing risk and creating ambitious goals is what keeps companies moving forward and ultimately leads to new and exciting discoveries.
Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google, recently commented that as Google takes even more ambitious and costly bets, one would expect their failure rate to go up. But in fact, it hasn’t. And even when they may not achieve an ambitious goal, the path they take often leads to important things.
The failure of ambitious things often leads to important things.
Google experienced this with its research into using AI (Artificial Intelligence) for more intelligent search. Although the expected outcome wasn’t successful, the research led directly to the development of ”contextual” ad placement and AdSense, which now represents about 30 percent of the company’s revenue. And in the pharmaceutical realm, Pfizer’s failure to develop a high blood pressure medication pivoted into the development of Viagra. In clinical trials, it was discovered that the medicine wasn’t generating the desired effects for blood pressure management; however, the company’s foresight to shift focus and explore the newfound side effects prompted the creation of a hugely successful drug.
Sometimes our ambitious goals and projects don’t necessarily end up where we planned. But if the learnings are harvested they can lead to new, strategic byproducts that could be as important or even more important than our original goals.
Astra Teller, the head of Google(x), the secretive research arm of Google, has commented that when he ranks possible “moon shots,” his term for audacious pilot projects, he does it in terms of the potential learnings from the experiment and not their impact.
As I think about some of the big problems that pharma has to address in this changing healthcare marketplace, I am inspired and encouraged by Page’s observation that, “Even as you go after bigger, more important, harder, ambitious problems, the failure rate doesn’t necessarily correlate with that.” This is because we have to engage the best and brightest in our company, and we’re taking risks that no one else has taken, which often leads to bigger and better solutions.
Just because problems are big, complex and involve regulatory issues doesn’t mean they should be avoided. In fact, every big, ambitious challenge, if it’s a game-changer, is going to be hard, and by definition is going to involve regulatory challenges.
The only way to truly fail in a changing environment is to not set ambitious goals, or to give up along the way.
A final note from Teller on solving big hairy problems: “Our starting assumption is that all our assumptions are wrong.” If we start with the idea that everyone (including us) is thinking about the problem wrong, then we have an opportunity to create an alternative solution that might change the whole industry. Secular change.
Perhaps we need to create a pharma(x)…